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Is College a Right or a Privilege?

Like many of my fellow Americans, I spent countless hours my senior year in high school filling out various applications for colleges and scholarships. I mechanically completed them as they required little original thought or creativity. Then I reached the SMU scholarship application. The essay required that I read an article and respond. The topic: college as a right vs. college as a privilege. My immediate response was “Right, of course. Everyone has the right to an education.” I then reminded myself what country I was in.

President Obama has declared that he wants the United States to once more have the world’s highest proportion of college graduates. While that’s a praiseworthy goal, it’s easier said than done. The problem is not getting people to go to college, the issue is paying for it. The average four year degree in this country will cost six figures, with the average college graduate walking across the stage with more than $25,000 in debt to accompany their diploma.

The cost of college is of little concern to families in other countries. Like healthcare, education is generally considered a right and is accessible to essentially everyone. In England, for example, a middle class family would pay £9000 in tuition a year whether they were attending Oxford or the University of Bedfordshire. A British friend of mine nearly keeled over with a heart attack when I told him the going rate for a four year education at Rollins College.

I consider myself incredibly blessed. I earned a generous scholarship from my four years of hard work in high school and my parents were able to pay the remaining balance so I could attend my top choice. For many families, though, this isn’t the case. I’ve had friends and teammates that were never able to have the traditional college experience of leaving town and only coming back for holidays and laundry days. They instead live at home and attend local colleges that are dramatically less expensive. It’s truly a paradox: our large middle class makes too much money to qualify for financial aid but not enough to send their children off to university.

Anywhere else, education would be a right, and attending college would be based on having the necessary qualifications to attend the school and not the ability to pay. Here, however, it’s a different story. Receiving a college education in the United States is unwaveringly a privilege. Mr. President, we’d love to take back that top spot, but until we find a way to make education affordable and accessible, it’s simply not possible. Something’s got to give. Also, if your parents are footing the bill for college, do this: the next time they call to check in, say a big thank you. You’re having the experience of a lifetime that is the stuff of dreams for some. Thanks, Mom and Dad.

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